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Huh? - Why Chinese is harder to learn than French

Marcela OteroMar 16, 2017

Since the 1960s, the assumption that the brain is an unchangeable, fixed structure has been widely refuted. In fact, it displays remarkable plasticity, and can both adapt to injuries and to new experiences. Why, then, is it so difficult to learn a language as an adult?

The answer is somewhere between nature and nurture. To start with, adult brains have less neuroplasticity than those of children, a divide which continues to widen with age. Kids start with a blank slate, and for the first few years of their lives, their brains are dedicated to language acquisition -- intuiting and inferring structures and sounds without another language coloring their perception. This remarkable “sensitive” or “critical” period lasts until puberty, when the brain begins to settle into more established patterns, making first-level language acquisition an increasingly difficult proposal.

In 1982, linguist Stephen Krashen proposed that adults approach language learning in the same way that children do, emphasizing acquisition based on exchange of meaning, rather than on “learning” and rote memorization of grammar points. While this has some merits, and subconscious language acquisition has proven more powerful than conscious learning, it is undeniable that adult brains gradually lose the organic learning ability from childhood. In compensation, our metacognitive strategies enable us to learn more systematically, both deductively, through focus on form, or inductively, through focus on meaning.

Systematized learning should be used to supplement more immersive methods, since it can also prove a hindrance, as we tend to over-analyze the new rules and sounds in an attempt to fit a known pattern over them, instead of adopting an open absorption policy. This is especially true with pronunciation -- Native Japanese speakers are notoriously unable to differentiate “r” and “l” sounds, but their children can.

Interestingly enough, adults face difficulties with pronunciation and the rules that govern grammar and syntax, but pick up vocabulary with relative ease. Research suggests that learning a second or third language as an adult, and especially as a senior citizen, can be beneficial for brain health, thus delaying onset dementia and keeping cognitive abilities sharp. The ideal learning method really depends on each individual, but immersive techniques tend to provide the best results, which brings us to our original question:

Why are some languages harder to learn than others?

A good rule of thumb for determining the difficulty of learning any language is its familiarity, or how close it is to your mother tongue. For example, a native Japanese speaker should find Korean relatively simple. Native English speakers, on the other hand, can pick up French, Spanish, or German fairly easily, as English has borrowed heavily from these. On the other hand, languages can be terribly difficult to learn if they use tones which rise and fall in pitch, have a completely different grammar and type of script, or even multiple writing schemes.

Image: WangfuJing Street - Beijing, China (source: Ivan Walsh, cropped)

Mandarin Chinese is an excellent example that combines some of the most difficult elements to intuit. It is tonal, which means that pitch completely changes the meaning of words, so “buy” can turn into “sell” just by lowering your inflection. The characters are another hurdle to clear. Classical Mandarin has over 50,000, but only 20,000 in actual parlance, and teachers generally consider functional literacy achieved with around 2,000. Words are built through combinations of basic components and single-structure characters, but in the combination achieve new meaning, much in the same way as the English word airplane. “Air” on its own doesn’t mean flying machine, and theoretically, neither does “plane”, which in itself has at least six different and distinct definitions. It is only through the joining of “air” and “plane” that we arrive at flying machine, except when we abbreviate it back into “plane”!

So, those vaunted 2,000 characters might not really be enough —think of the word “uptight”, you might know both “up” and “tight”, but still completely misunderstand the meaning of “uptight”—. This, coupled with a basic lack of intuitiveness that sees no correspondence between the written character and the sound, makes Mandarin horribly hard to read and write. Compound that with the fact that there’s also a second, simplified version of the characters that were adopted by the People’s Republic of China in the 50s and 60s, and you’ll understand why Chinese students have dictionary lookup contests instead of spelling bees. On the positive side, the grammar is similar to English, following the subject, predicate, object order. And sometimes it can even be simpler, as it doesn’t have different forms based on gender, or singular/plural.

The Foreign Services Institute has a handy chart illustrating English speakers’ degree of difficulty for different languages, and divides them into five levels, the hardest of which takes 88 weeks, or 2,200 hours to learn. Pashto, for example, ranks just under that as a category IV, with significant linguistic or cultural differences from English. The reason for this is its complex morphology, or the way that words are formed, rather than the sounds themselves. It’s written in a modified form of the Arabic alphabet, which brings an additional level of complexity. Though it’s spoken by more than 50 million people worldwide, they tend to be concentrated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so finding lessons or native speakers to practice with might prove a bit difficult.

But don’t despair! As we discussed before, immersivity is a key component in picking up a second language, especially if your first one is very far removed. Most language programs follow precisely this approach, emphasizing oral communication rather than written. This is another bonus if your goal is fluency, since it means you won’t have to learn Mandarin characters or the Arabic alphabet.

The lesson here is that there’s something out there for everyone, even for a relatively obscure language like Pashto or Xhosa. Three programs on our 10 best of 2017, Rosetta Stone, Transparent Language, and Pimsleur offer courses in some of the most uncommon and difficult languages, with somewhat similar approaches.